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  • Dave

Top 10 Association Fundraising Smart Practices for Success

Updated: 4 days ago

The article’s title, “Top Association Fundraising Smart Practices for Success,” overlaid atop seven people meeting and celebrating in an office.

Associations fulfill an essential purpose in the lives of their members and the community as a whole. Whether your association provides professional development programs, hosts industry conferences, engages in advocacy, or undertakes all these initiatives, you need to secure significant, consistent funding to succeed long term.

However, association fundraising is no solo endeavor. Whether your association is a 501(c)(3) entity or you have a separate 501(c)(3) association foundation, you need to rally your internal teams, board, volunteers, and donors to build a strong base of support for your goals.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the top association fundraising practices that will enhance your results. For a quick overview and assessment questions to guide you through these practices, check out our video:

As the video explains, there are many areas you can address to improve your fundraising capacity and boost your revenue. If you’re ready to build sustainable philanthropic revenue streams for your association, consider how you can implement these practices into your fundraising strategy.

Top association fundraising smart practices, as explained in more detail below.

1. Develop a detailed case for support.

A case for support outlines the rationale and core messaging for your association's fundraising efforts. You’ll typically base the contents of this document on your current strategic plan and tie it to your overall goals and purpose. Specifically, your case for support should contain elements such as your:

  • Mission and values

  • Vision and goals

  • Program impact data

  • Beneficiary testimonials and success stories

Your case for support should provide a “menu” of giving opportunities for major gift prospects. It should detail how you’ll put donations to good use, why it’s important to give now, and what you can accomplish with specific gift amounts. For example, the case for support might identify how a $25,000 major gift would endow a professional development scholarship, offsetting the cost for an emerging professional to attend the association’s annual meeting.

2. Secure commitment for your association foundation.

Where separate entities exist, the funds your association foundation raises will ultimately support the initiatives and long-term success of the parent association. Therefore, it’s important to maintain transparency and alignment between both entities. Consider these basic tips to secure strong internal support for your association foundation:

  • Spell out the relationship between your association foundation and parent association in a periodically reviewed operating agreement.

  • Include shared board members between both entities, such as an association officer who sits on your foundation board during their term.

  • Arrange to receive in-kind goods (such as office supplies) and services (such as IT or accounting) as supporting contributions from the association as an investment in the future of the profession or industry.

By ensuring the parent association is committed to your foundation’s fundraising efforts, you’ll be able to maintain clear communication, keep your strategic priorities aligned, and benefit from shared resources.

3. Establish proper staffing and fundraising infrastructure.

Remember that fundraising is a collaborative process. To launch and manage effective campaigns, you need staff and volunteers to provide operational and logistical support. Depending on the scale of your association foundation’s operations, the parent association might provide or contract its staff to assist with your initiatives.

To build and maintain a high-performing fundraising team, you should meet with the association’s Executive Director, President, or CEO to set performance objectives and schedule annual reviews.

At the same time, ask yourself if your association’s software is user-friendly to both your staff and donors. For staff working on your development program, the platform should make it easy to find prospect information, track their engagement, and nurture major donors over time. Your donors should be able to access mobile-responsive donation pages with secure payment processing and automated gift receipts.

4. Get your board involved in association fundraising.

Your association foundation’s board members are respected individuals who can play significant roles in furthering your fundraising campaigns. They have both the extensive networks and the influence necessary to inspire people to support your association.

To set your board up to contribute to your fundraising goals, be sure to:

  • Create written expectations to use during board recruitment and guide board members in fulfilling their responsibilities.

  • Continually identify and engage emerging association or industry leaders to fill board vacancies.

  • Establish a leadership succession planning process with individuals ascending through a series of chairs (e.g., vice chair, chair, immediate past chair) to ensure shared board leadership with new energy and perspectives.

  • Conduct annual board self-evaluations led by the nominating/governance committee.

  • Invite the association’s board to join the foundation board in “leading by example” through their personal philanthropic support.

  • Develop a board emeritus program as a way for “termed out” board members to stay involved with your foundation in an advisory capacity.

Typically, board member terms last two to three years with a maximum of two to three consecutive terms. Invite those among your board who are active and meet expectations to continue serving for successive terms and conduct periodic board fundraising coaching to keep them up to date on the latest tips and trends for success.

5. Created a dedicated annual giving program.

An annual giving program serves as an entry point for donors who are interested in supporting your association’s programs and services. Follow these steps to secure renewable programmatic and operating revenue through annual giving:

  1. Allow association members to provide optional contributions during membership dues renewal and conference registration.

  2. Secure challenge grants, which create urgency among prospective donors through the idea that all gifts will be matched at the end of the campaign.

  3. Establish leadership giving clubs for donors who give $1,000 or more annually to engage the most committed and involved members of your community.

  4. Align your annual appeals with the end of the calendar year (instead of the fiscal year) to minimize confusion and tap into the generosity of the holiday season.

  5. Steward annual donors to inspire them to become major donors in the future.

Improve your annual giving outreach by segmenting your communications. Send out direct mail and online messages depending on donor preferences and tailor your content to specific audience groups. Then make it easy for donors to stay involved by enabling recurring gifts and developing a dedicated follow-up cadence to retain your previous year’s donors.

6. Prioritize major giving.

With a clear case for support, committed volunteers, and capable development staff, your association can create strong, lasting relationships with major donors. While major gift thresholds differ from organization to organization, these individuals have the capacity and affinity to provide substantial funding to your association.

Prepare staff and volunteers by training them on the Five I’s of major giving:

  • Identification. First, identify promising major donor prospects for your association. Conduct research to determine their capacity to give significantly. Then look for past engagement with and support of the association or similar organizations to find out if they would be interested in your case for support priorities.

  • Information. Once you’ve built out a prospect list, inform potential donors about your association’s programs, services, and funding needs. Send out regular e-newsletters, create social media updates, and emphasize how your association makes an impact within its community.

  • Interest. Cultivate more interest by inviting prospective major donors to participate in more personalized activities, such as one-on-one cultivation or invitations to in-person or virtual donor appreciation events. Learn what aspects of your association they’re most interested in and how you can lean into those areas to strengthen your connection.

  • Involvement. By providing more hands-on, engaging opportunities, you can bring prospective major donors closer to your association. Consider hosting exclusive events for prospects, inviting them to join an advisory board, or asking them if they’d like to volunteer at an event during your annual meeting or in another venue.

  • Investment. Finally, ask prospective major donors to invest in your association. Approach each prospect based on their giving capacity and interests, asking them to make a major gift or support your association with a planned gift.

Board members can be effective complementary partners in the identification and cultivation process. In some cases, they may be the right person to “make the ask”—especially if they have a strong connection with a prospect. Ensure that board members are comfortable with getting involved through advance preparation and coaching.

7. Promote your association fundraising efforts on multiple platforms.

To boost awareness of your fundraising campaigns, market your association foundation within the parent association and establish it as the philanthropic vehicle supporting the member community.

Maximize your reach by sharing marketing messages through:

  • Email

  • Association and foundation leaders at industry events

  • Both the association’s and the foundation’s websites

  • E-newsletters

  • Association publications

  • Exhibit spaces at annual conferences

  • Social media posts

  • Digital annual reports

According to Double the Donation, 48% of donors say regular email communications are most likely to keep them engaged and inspire repeat donations, followed by social media communication (18%), print communication (16%), handwritten notes (12%), and phone calls (6%). Communicate across a variety of channels to keep your fundraising efforts at the top of donors’ minds.

8. Personalize your association's fundraising communications.

No two donors are alike. While it may not be feasible to interact with each donor one-on-one, it’s still important to make them feel individually valued by your association. Track donor details in your association database and personalize your fundraising communications by mentioning their:

  • Preferred name

  • Previous gifts

  • Past engagement, such as volunteering

  • Interests

Plus, if donors have shared communication preferences, such as how often they’d like to hear from your association or that they prefer text updates to emailed ones, adjust your messaging accordingly. Doing so ensures your donors are happy and eager to hear about the impact your association foundation is having on the profession or industry.

9. Develop a plan for appreciating your donors.

By designing a thoughtful plan for thanking donors, you can increase the likelihood they’ll give again and inspire others to support your association. There are various ways you can express your appreciation, including:

  • Thank-you emails

  • Handwritten cards

  • Phone calls from board members

  • Public recognition in association publications

  • Website spotlights

  • Shoutouts at events or meetings

  • Annual report listings

Beyond reaching out directly after a donor gives, consider sending well wishes on their birthday and holidays to demonstrate how much they matter to your association. Additionally, send out surveys once or twice a year to collect their input on how you can create more rewarding experiences for them.

10. Reach out to association fundraising experts.

Whether your association foundation seeks to increase annual giving or start a planned giving program, you don’t have to go it alone. There are plenty of fundraising experts who have years of extensive experience developing tailored fundraising strategies for organizations like yours.

The Sheridan Group is a recognized leader in providing exceptional fundraising counsel within the association foundation world. We’ve helped more than 250 clients achieve fundraising success through services such as:

We created a comprehensive development plan for the Ohio CPA Foundation that adjusted staff responsibilities and cultivated prospects among the association’s member base. During the implementation of the plan, we helped the foundation expand its direct mail revenue, secure three major gift commitments (including a $50,000 pledge), and launch a planned giving program to engage its long-time members.

Connect with our experienced team to learn how we can support your association foundation in enhancing your fundraising capacity and increasing your impact. 

We assess, we plan, and we implement.

Keeping up with association fundraising smart practices

A wide range of activities fall under the umbrella of association fundraising, and it’s up to your foundation to turn your options into a targeted strategy for success. Keep track of metrics such as your return on investment (ROI), average gift size, and donor retention rate to measure your performance and make improvements as needed.

If you need a little guidance on the best fundraising approach for your association, reach out to The Sheridan Group. We’ll apply more than 40 years of specialized fundraising experience to set your team up with strong, sustainable revenue streams.

For a deeper dive into effective fundraising campaigns and smart practices, check out these additional resources:


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